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On the Generality of Critical Reasons Author(s): Monroe C. Beardsley Source: The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 59, No. 18 (Aug. 30, 1962), pp. 477-486 Published by: Journal of Philosophy, Inc.

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VOLUME LIX, No. 18

AUGUST 30, 1962

THE

JOURNAL OF PHILOSOPHY

ON THE

GENERALITY

OF CRITICAL

REASONS *

IF giving reasons for an assertion consists in making other asser- tions and also asserting that they support it, then critics evi-

dently give reasons for their judgments of art. To doubt this is to urge a stricter concept of reason-giving, according to which not every proposition that is alleged to be a reason actually is one. But then, using the narrower definition, we can still say that critics wish to give reasons, and think they are doing so, whether or not they succeed. Whichever way we put it, the critic im- plicitly makes the same essential claim: namely, that his judgments can be supported in some way by other propositions. This claim is challenged by the Critical Skeptic. The form of his challenge depends on the latitude given to the term 'reason', but its substance is the same. A few years ago, a colleague of mine and I engaged in correspondence with an English gentleman, author of a monograph entitled Shakespeare's Hyphens,' who pointed out to us that Shakespeare used a great many hyphenated words and that this practice was also followed by Walt Whitman and Dylan Thomas. Our correspondent argued at one point:

the more hyphens, the greater the poet. Now, suppose a critic were to propose the following: This poem is poor, because it is deficient in hyphens. We may choose to say that this is not a

in this sense of

reason at all, because it is so wildly irrelevant;

"reason," the skeptic's position is that no reasons can be given for critical judgments. On the other hand, we may take a more charitable view, and call this a reason simply because it is offered as one; in this broad sense, the skeptic's position is that no good, or cogent, reasons can be given for critical judgments. The critical skeptic may remind us of Wordsworth's assurance, in his 1800 Preface, that he was not "principally influenced by the selfish and foolish hope of reasoning him [i.e., the reader] into an approbation of these particular Poems." 2 Now this was a some-

* This paper was presented at the Northwest

Division

of

the

American

Society for Aesthetics, Washington

State

University,

April

20-21,

1962.

1 L. C. Thompson, Authors).

Shakespeare's

Hyphens

(London:

Amalgamated

2 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1800),

in Complete Poetical

Works (Bos-

ton:

Houghton

?

Mifflin, 1911),

vol. X,

p.

5.

Copyright

1962 by Journal

477

of Philosophy,

Inc.

478 THE

JOURNAL

OF PHILOSOPH1Y

what peculiar remark in the first place. The hope of reasoning someone into an approbation might conceivably be "selfish" (if Wordsworth were merely aiming to increase his royalties), but it is "foolish" only if we take 'approbation' in the sheer sense of liking. "How can anyone be argued into liking Wordsworth's 'We are Seven'?" the skeptic asks. But I should think that the aim of the reasoner-that is, the critic armed with reasons-is not to get people to like the poem, but to get them to acknowledge that it is good. And the question is whether his reasons-or alleged reasons-are of service to him in this enterprise. I don't think that the skeptic's position, Cartesian though it may in some respects appear, can be disposed of by a simple appeal to paradigm cases. We might try this argument against him:

Granted that the number of hyphens does not make a poem poor (or good), still that's not the sort of thing critics usually say. Consider a principle enunciated by Cleanth Brooks:

A poem, then, to sum up, is to be judged, not by the truth or falsity as such,

of the idea which it incorporates, but rather by

its coherence, sensitivity, depth, richness, and tough-mindedness.3

Now, suppose the critic says, "This poem is poor because it is incoherent." If that is not a good reason for condemning a poem, what could be a good reason? Doesn't critical skepticism imply that the expression 'good reason' has no application at all in critical discourse? But surely this term must have some applica- tion, or we would never have learned how to use it. If this sort of argument is ever persuasive, I'm afraid that aesthetics is the last place in which to employ it. Probably a fair number of philosophers would be quite ready to label the whole body of critical reasoning a misuse of language. Let us assume that there must be some examples of good reasons, if we can speak intelligibly of good reasons; but it might well be that all of the examples are to be found in other fields than criticism, and that none of the arguments in, say, The Well Wrought Urn, come near to meeting the high standards that are exemplified in legal reason- ing, or ethics, or the game-theory of nuclear deterrence. No- if we are going to be able to make sense of what the critic does when he gives reasons, and back him up with a philosophical ac- count of how those reasons really work, we must grapple more closely with the skeptic's arguments.

I

The general problem of justifying the critic's appeal to reasons is, of course, large and complex. I propose to deal with only one

its character as drama-by

3 The Well Wrought Um

(New

York:

Reynal and Hitchcock,

1947),

p. 229.

OUNTHE

GENERALITY

OF CRITICAL

REASONS

479

of its parts-but one that has received some attention in the past few years. To pass over a number of preliminary matters, let me first say that I hold that the critic does make value judgments and does sometimes adequately support them by good reasons. A reason is some descriptive or interpretive proposition about the work under consideration-" The poem is incoherent," for example. Thus a reason always cites some property of the work, and we may say that this property is then employed as a criterion of value by the critic who presents that reason. Criteria cited in reasons sup- porting favorable judgments are merits; criteria cited on behalf of unfavorable judgments are defects. If the critic says, "This poem is poor because (among other things) is it incoherent," then he is treating incoherence as a poetic defect. A critical criterion is thus a feature that helps to make the work good or bad, better or worse; it adds to or detracts from its aesthetic goodness. This is the position that the skeptic rejects. He holds that, in the sense proposed, there are no criteria of aesthetic value, that is, of goodness or badness in poems, paintings, plays, music, etc. Some skeptics like to invoke John Wisdom's distinction, in another context, between what he called "dull" and "interesting" ways of talking about art. A book about art, says Wisdom, "is dull when

it tries to set out in general terms what makes a good picture good'"

by giving "rules"' or "canons."' This, by itself, is something of an obiter dictum, but it can be given plausible and perhaps rather

convincing support. If one proposition is a reason for another, in the sense of actu- ally supporting it, then there must be a logical connection of some sort between them. And, being a logical connection, it must relate general concepts in an abstract way. Thus, for example, if a certain degree of sharpness is a merit in knives (we can think of

a particular sort of knife, such as the butcher's), then to say that

a knife has that degree of sharpness must always be a reason to support the conclusion that it is good, and it must apply to all knives of the relevant sort. This reason may not be enough to prove that the knife is good, since the merit may be outweighed by serious defects, but sharpness to that degree will always make its contribution to the goodness of the knife. It will, at least, never be a fault in a knife: that is, we cannot say, "That knife

is poor, just because it is exactly that sharp." And, of two knives

similar in all other respects, if one is sharp and the other is not,

Thus sharpness

the former will be a better knife than the other. is a general merit in knives.

of

4 See his paper in the symposium

on "Things

and Persons,"

the

Aristotelian

Society,

Supplement,

22

(1948):

207.

Proceedings

480 THE

JOURNAL

OF PHILOSOPHY

Generality of this sort appears to be essential to reasons in the logical sense, and if critical criteria are defined as features citable in reasons, then there must be an important sense in which such criteria are general, too. Thus the view that there are reasons that support the critic 's judgment entails the view that there are general

criteria of evaluation.

Let us call this view the General Criterion

Theory. It is a main target of the critical skeptic's attack.

I shall select the very

forthright statement by Mr. William E. Kennick, in his article,

As

my

main

text

for

examination,

"Does

Traditional

Aesthetics

Rest

on

a

Mistake ? " 5

In this

article,

Mr.

Kennick

holds that

there

are

no

"general

rules,

standards,

art by which alone such critical

criteria,

canons,

or laws

applicable

to

all

works

of

appraisals

can be supported"

(329).

And

he goes

on to

say

this:

Ordinarily

we feel

no constraint

in

praising

one novel

for

its

verisimilitude,

another for its humour, and still

another

for its

plot

or characterization

 

Botticelli 's lyric

grace

is

his

glory,

but

Giotto

and

Chardin

are

not

to

be

condemned

because

their

poetry

is

of

a different

order.

of

art

are,

or may

be,

praiseworthy

or

blameworthy

and not always

painting

this

but

for

the same reasons.

blameworthy

mean

that

it

in

is

A quality

be

does not

may

another;

not

realism

sometimes

.

.

works

for different reasons,

one

. Different

that

is

a virtue

is praiseworthy

not

always

a

(331).6

in

virtue,

The problem, then, is this: Do critical reasons have a kind of generality of application, so that it makes sense to try to formulate principles of criticism? I believe they do. Mr. Kennick, like a number of other recent writers, believes they do not. Now, if they do not, there are two possibilities. Some philosophers, including Mr. Kennick, hold that we can still talk of giving reasons in particular cases (that is, supporting the judgment that this or that poem is good or poor), without committing ourselves to any gen-

eral principles

at all.

Others, however, hold (and I think with

more reason)

that some form of generality

is essential to reason-

giving and, therefore, that if there are no general criteria, there can be no critical criteria at all. My aim is to examine the arguments against the General Criterion Theory. Before coming to them, however, it may be helpful to remind ourselves that the issue has two close analogues in other fields of philosophy, no less troublesome elsewhere than this is here. First, there is the problem of the universalizability of ethical judgments.

5 Mind,

67

(1958):

317-334.

6 Cf.

Mary

Mothersill,

"Critical

Reasons,"

Philosophical

Quarterly,

11

(1961):

74-79;

this

is a reply to Dorothy

Walsh,

"Critical

Reasons,"

Philo-

sophical

Beview,

69

(1960):

386-393:

"There

is

no

characteristic

which

is

amenable

to independent

explanation

and which by its

presence

enhances

the

aesthetic

value

of

paintings

or of

any

sub-class

of

paintings"

(77).

ON THE

GENERALITY

OF CRITICAL

REASONS

481

Some writers have contended that it is precisely the difference between ethical judgment and critical judgment that one is general and the other is not,7 but there does seem to be a similar problem in ethics. When we blame a man for not keeping an appoint- ment, are we committed to the universalization of an implicit prin- ciple? Most moral philosophers would say we are; and the prin- ciple is something like: Anyone else in circumstances that do not differ in relevant ways from this one would be equally to blame. The problem is to provide an adequate criterion of relevance, without circularity. We want to say, for example, that having a different color skin is not relevant, while having been knocked down by a truck is relevant. Is there an analogous kind of implicit commitment involved in criticism? (And I don't mean when we blame the painter, but when we set a low estimate on his work.) Second, there is the problem of the relation between singular causal statements and general laws. According to the traditional view, singular causal statements (such as, 'Dropping caused that pitcher to break') are, and must be, applications of universal law- like statements, even if we cannot formulate the latter completely ('Whenever a pitcher of this sort is dropped in this way, it will break'). But in recent years some philosophers have suggested that we may be able to know singular causal statements, without relying on any general laws. Historical explanations are some- times alleged to be of this sort. I would be happy to avoid this broad and complicated issue, but there is more than an analogy be- tween my aesthetic problem and the causal problem: the former

is in fact a special case of the latter. For, speaking very sketchily,

I conceive the peculiar aesthetic goodness of a work of art to con-

sist of its capacity to provide experiences with certain desirable qualities; and the criteria of critical evaluation are simply features that tend to contribute to or detract from this capacity. Hence, according to my theory, there is a causal relationship involved in the notion of critical criteria. And since I side with those who think that some generalized lawful relationships are essential to individual causal actions, by the same token I must suppose that

a criterion can be relevant to the value of a particular work of art only if some generality of bearing lurks (so to speak) in the background.

II

A fundamental point alleged against the General Criterion Theory is that works of art are unique. Frequent repetition has

7 The writer most often quoted is Stuart Hampshire, "Logic and Appre- ciation," in William Elton, ed., Aesthetics and Language (Oxford: Black- well, 1954).

482 THE

JOURNAL

OF PHILOSOPHY

not worn off the oddness of this statement. It can be construed in several ways-of which the most sensible are the most pointless. Mary Mothersill and Ruby Meager have analyzed and criticized it very effectively, and I need not review what they have said.8 No doubt works of art-if we confine our attention to the good ones-tend to have a comparatively high degree of individuality, at least as compared with knives and typewriters. Because there are many human acts that may be called acts of promise-keeping, we can speak of general moral rules. But perhaps there are no genuine classes of aesthetic objects, such as poems and paintings (this seems to be the extreme neo-Crocean view)-or perhaps the members of each class differ so much from one another that no features can be found that are desirable in all or most of them. But there are genuine classes of aesthetic objects, and their members share important properties. I don't see why we cannot admit that visual designs vary enormously in many ways, without denying that certain fundamental laws of perception may be at work in all of them. I should think that people and their moral predicaments are at least as different as poems, yet we can say that courage is a virtue in anyone in whom it may be found. There is an interesting phrase that turns up here and there. For example: "A good critic is one who can discern the peculiar excellence of a particular work."" Now what is meant by 'the peculiar excellence' of a work? If it means (as I should think it must) an excellence that no other existing work happens to have-then of course many works do have peculiar excellences. (Many also have excellences that are not peculiar to them.) But the existence of such excellences does not in any way contradict the General Criterion Theory. On the other hand, if it means instead a quality that is an excellence in this work, but that, if it appeared in any other work, could not be an excellence-then I have seen no convincing proof that there are "peculiar excellences" in this sense. Let us now turn back to Mr. Kennick's propositions and ex- amples. I think his paper contains at least four distinguishable arguments against the General Criterion Theory, each going a little beyond the previous one.

Proceedings

of the Aristotelian Society, 59 (1959): 49-70, and Mary Mothersill, " 'Unique'

as

Tsugawa, "The Objectivity of Aesthetic Judgments," Philosophical Review,

Albert

8 See Ruby

an Aesthetic

Meager,

"The

Uniqueness

this

JOURNAL,

of

a Work

58

(1961):

of

Art,"

421-437.

Predicate,"

Cf.

70

(1961):

3-22,

esp.

11-12.

9See

Mary Mothersill,

op. cit.,

lation

of the argument

for the less

428;

radical

this

sentence

appears

in her formu-

Theory.

form of the Autonomy

ON THE

GENERALITY

OF CRITICAL

REASONS

483

The first argument is this: the General Criterion Theory can't be true because there are no single features of poetry, for example, that are either necessary or sufficient conditions of goodness.'0 That no single feature is sufficient I am prepared to grant at once. That there is no necessary feature I am not prepared to grant without qualification: for example, I have argued that some degree of coherence is a necessary condition of being a poem at all, and a fortiori of being a good poem." I suppose, however, that it could be replied, by way of putting this qualification in its place, that no special degree of coherence is necessary to make a poem a good poem. In any case, I shall waive my objection and concede for the sake of argument that there are no necessary or sufficient single conditions of poetic goodness. Does it follow that the Gen- eral Criterion Theory is wrong?

The answer seems sufficiently obvious.

Though a given feature

may be present in some poor poems and absent from some good ones, so that it neither guarantees poetic goodness nor is indispensable to it, nevertheless it may contribute to the goodness of any poem that contains it and, thus, may be citable as a merit wherever it

can be found. A man may be good without being magnanimous, and he may be magnanimous without being good; but that doesn't

show that magnanimity is not a virtue in anyone who has it, and

to the degree in which he has it. So, too, not

every good poem

has " depth, " to recall one of the terms quoted from Cleanth Brooks

above, and not every deep poem is good-yet depth may always be a good thing, as far as it goes.

The second argument given by Mr. Kennick involves a shift of ground: What if different features are merits in different contexts? -humor in one case, he suggests, tragic intensity in another. Or lyric grace in one painting, heroic strength in another. Does this refute the possibility of general criteria? I think not. Lyric grace may nevertheless always be a good thing when it can be had, and heroic strength likewise-only it may turn out that they can- not both be had in the same painting, or not without being watered

down or confused.

not deny that there are qualitatively different merits that cannot always be combined. We admire one person's physical courage and another person's sensitivity to others, but we find few, if any, who combine both of these virtues to a high degree. So with two

10 This seems to be the main point of A. G. Pleydell-Pearce, " On the Limits and Use of 'Aesthetic Criteria'," Philosophical Quarterly, 9 (1959):

29-45.

The General Criterion Theory certainly need

11 See "The

Definitions of the Arts,"

Criticism, 20 (Winter, 1961):

175-187.

Journal of

Aesthetics and Art

484 THE

JOURNAL

OF PHILOSOPHY

of Brooks's criteria-'-"sensitivity" and "tough-mindedness":

poems that excel in one of these are perhaps not likely to excel in the other. The third argument is also Mr. Kennick's-and this time he belongs to a larger company.12 What if there are features that are merits in some works, but not merits at all in other works? Take realism, Mr. Kennick suggests: sometimes it is a merit, sometimes not. But this does not tell against the General Criterion Theory if we complicate the theory in an easy and convenient way. There are features of poems, and there are pairs and clusters of features. And some contribute value, so to speak, on their own, while others do so only in combination. This principle has an application in many walks of life, as G. E. Moore pointed out some time ago. It's like saying that you don't want butter without bread, or bread without butter, but only the two together. We can say that bread is not desirable, and butter is not desirable, but bread-and-butter is desirable; or we can say that butter is some- times desirable (namely, when there's bread) and sometimes not (namely, when there isn't). Thus we should not be surprised to find specific features that may be good in one poem but neutral in another: their goodness depends upon association with other cooperative features. Mr. Kennick's example, realism, is a broad notion, so it's not clear exactly what sort of judgment he has in mind when he says that "Realism is not always a virtue." In some of its senses, I'm not sure that realism is ever a strictly literary virtue (or, as I would prefer to say, merit-Mr. Kennick's moralistic terms 'virtue' and 'blameworthy' do not seem to me appropriate to the eritical context). But a critic might justifiably cite an author's discrimi- nating ear for four-letter words as a merit in, say, Tropic of Cancer, where certain types of situation and character are present, though he would not, of course, wish to say that their introduction would improve The Wings of the Dove or The Mill on the Floss.

III

The fourth argument against the General Criterion Theory takes us a little beyond the third-though, in fact, the examples I have just given would serve for it as well. Suppose there are features that are merits in one work and actually defects in an- other. The touch of humor that is just right in one play is just

12 For example, Helen Knight, "The Use of 'Good' in Aesthetic Judg- ments," in William Elton, ed., op. cit., pp. 155-156; J. A. Passmore, "The Dreariness of Aesthetics," ibid., 49, 51-52; J. Kemp, "Generalization in the Philosophy of Art, " Philosophy, 33 (1958): 152.

ON THE

GENERALITY

OF CRITICAL

REASONS

485

exactly wrong in another-and so with the four-letter words. How then can there be any general criteria, or true propositions of the form: 'Humor is always a good-enhancing feature'? The General Criterion Theory can meet this objection by one more complication that is natural and sensible. Some criteria are sub- ordinate to others, as constituting their perceptual conditions. For example, suppose the touch of humor (the grave-digger's gags, the drunken porter at the gate) is a merit in one context because it heightens the dramatic tension, but a defect in another con- text, where it lets the tension down. Then we may admit that the touch of humor is not a general merit, but only because we also admit that something else is a general merit (in a play, that is)-namely, high dramatic tension. Remember that this does not mean that dramatic tension is either a necessary or sufficient condition of being a good play, nor does it mean that this desirable feature can be combined with all other desirable features, nor does

it mean that all plays that lack a high degree of it would necessarily

become better by increasing it, for some plays might thereby lose some other quality that especially adorns them. The point is that the General Criterion Theory can easily take account of such varia- tions as the skeptic points out-providing it is allowed to fall back upon more general and, so to speak, more fundamental criteria. We may distinguish two ranks of critical criteria, then, in the following way: Let us say that the properties A, B, C are the primary (positive) criteria of aesthetic value if the addition of any one of them or an increase in it, without a decrease in any of the others, will always make the work a better one. And let us

say that a given property X is a secondary (positive) criterion of aesthetic value if there is a certain set of other properties such that, whenever they are present, the addition of X or an increase in it will always produce an increase in one or more of the primary criteria. Notice that each of these definitions is formulated in such a way that it contains the word 'always' in an important position and, therefore, that they both define general criteria in an important sense. But the secondary criteria are subordinate and conditional:

it is only in certain contexts that, for example, elegant variation

is a fault of style. (However, some of these secondary criteria are quite broad in their relevance.) The primary criteria, on the other hand, always contribute positively to the value of a

work, in so far as they are present. And their absence is always

a deficiency, however it may be made up in other ways. Thus I think that Paul Ziff is precisely correct when he says:

486 THE

JOURNAL

OF PHILOSOPHY

Some good paintings are somewhat disorganized;

they

are

good

in

spite

of

the fact that they are somewhat disorganized.

But

no

painting

is

good

are dis-

because

organized.13

Disorganization, by this exact description, is a primary (negative) critical criterion. There is a danger that such a discussion as this may unintention-

it is disorganized,

and many

are bad primarily

because

they

ally

confirm John Wisdom 's remark that talk about "canons"

and

"rules"

is "dull."

I

don 't insist that it is interesting-

only that it is possible and reasonable. The act of judging-in the sense of appraising-works of art is certainly not a purely intellectual act, and many elements of talent and training are required to perform it well. But it is, in part, a rational act,

for it involves reasoning.

SWARTHMORE COLLEGE

MONROE C. BEARDSLEY

COMMENTS AND

CRITICISM

THE

IDENTITY

OF

MIND

AND

BODY

cfc1 OULD mental states be brain processes?" This is the title

Before attempt-

' question of an article by Jerome Shaffer.*

ing to answer this question we should first consider what kind of question it is. That is, what kind of approach is required in order to arrive at a satisfactory answer? Is it, for example, an empirical question? That is, is arriving at a satisfactory answer an empirical matter? Shaffer seems to think that it is and also claims that those who hold the Identity Theory, i.e., the theory that mental states are identical with certain physical processes such as brain processes,

consider the problem expressed by the question to be a matter of empirical fact. But let us see whether it is or not. One necessary condition of the identity of mental phenomena with some kind of physical phenomena is that there be, using Feigl's terminology, a one-to-one "simultaneity-correspondence be- tween the mental and the physical." However, this one-to-one correspondence need not be between each mental phenomenon and some one physical phenomenon. It might be between. each mental

13 "Reasons

ration

(Boston:

in

Criticism,"

in

Israel

Scheffler, ed.,

Allvn

and Bacon,

1958),

p. 220.

Philosophy

26:

* "Could

813.

Mental

States

Unless

otherwise

be Brain

all

noted,

Processes

page

I," this

JOURNAL,

will

be

to

references

and

Edu-

58

this

(1961),

article.